Monday, July 21, 2008

The Unappreciated Primary

An effective nonpartisan must be an educator, of oneself first, and then of media, of the public, and, if elected, of one’s fellow legislators. The most important lesson that a nonpartisan must learn and internalize, and then teach to one’s supporters, and then the public at large, is the crucial importance of the party primary. Frank R. Kent, a veteran political reporter of The Baltimore Sun, a doyen of the profession, had this to say about party primaries in the primer that he wrote in 1923, The Great Game of Politics, which has gone through several re-printings:
To think that the general election is more important than the primary election, as most voters do, is to magnify the wrong side of the political picture. It ought to be reversed, and instead of, as now, many more voters voting in the general election than in the primaries, the public interest should be concentrated on the primaries first, and the general election second. As thing stand to-day, the popular tendency is to regard primaries as the particular concern of the politicians, and not of real interest to the average voter. The result is that often an absurdly small proportion of the qualified voters participate in the primaries.

There could not be a greater mistake. This lack of appreciation of what the primaries really mean, and the general neglect to participate in them, plays directly into the hands of the machine. It makes it ridiculously easy for the machine, through the precinct executives, to control the situation. It actually permits the machine to run the country.

Kent wrote at a time when paternalistic urban machines “ran” great cities, dominating their politics, and sometimes the politics of their state, as well. The day of these powerful machines, such as New York City’s Tammany Hall, that Lincoln Steffens pilloried in his muckraking classic The Shame of the Cities, is long over, but the major parties in cities, counties and states are still controlled by formal organizations which designate candidates, help finance them, and bring out the precinct workers who get out the vote. These party organizations are still headed by chairmen, who often have patronage in their gift, are often powerful, and without much of a stretch could be called “bosses.” So Kent’s wisdom and experience are still relevant.

From Kent’s perspective, the independent voter forfeits the chance to influence the choice of a party candidate in a primary, and is left with the candidate that the party leaders or party voters have chosen. Says Kent, “It ought to be clear that the man who votes in the general election and not in the primaries loses at least 50 per cent of the value and effectiveness of his vote as compared to the man who votes in both”. It would appear sensible, then, for an aspiring nonpartisan candidate, at the forefront of his message, to encourage independents to register in the party whose choice of candidate they’d most wish to influence, to become oxymoron nonpartisan Republicans or nonpartisan Democrats.

Kent’s point, so fundamental, has not registered with most voters in the more than eighty years since he first stated it, nor is it a political insight that party leaders are likely to draw to voters’ attention: the fewer primary voters not connected to the party apparatus, the better. But Kent’s point is so compelling that nonpartisans in and out of Congress should make it the first order of business to spread the word and keep drumming it into voter consciousness. Turning political independents into “party nonpartisans” could revolutionize American politics.

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